Daunting Task? Learn to Whip It!
— It’s not about kinky sex; it’s about problem-solving —
One of my favorite tunes from decades past is Whip It, by the technopop unit Devo. I used to play Whip It in a cover band (along with Uncontrollable Urge), and it always made partygoers jump to their feet.
Back then, I could hardly have known that I would later run into Devo founder Mark Mothersbaugh at a Tokyo art show, or that years after that, I’d be referring to Devo in a blog.
But here I am, facing a daunting task (designing and executing doctoral research) and I find my mind casting back to days of playing music, and drawing on the wisdom so neatly described by Devo’s lyrics.
Some listeners thought Whip It is about kinky sex; it’s actually about problem-solving:
When a problem comes along, you must whip it.
Before the cream sits out too long, you must whip it.
When something’s going wrong, you must whip it.
Now whip it! Into shape. Shape it up! Get straight!
Go forward! Move ahead! Try to detect it. It’s not too late! To whip it! Whip it good!
When a good time turns around, you must whip it.
You will never live it down, unless you whip it.
No one gets their way, until they whip it.
Maybe because I played Whip It so many times, and maybe because I happened to meet Mothersbaugh in person, something about the song struck me deeply and stayed with me over the years. While pondering my approach to daunting tasks recently undertaken, I came up with seven steps that have worked for me. Take a look, and see if they might work for you, too.
1. Abandon Either the Task or the Result
Read The Underachiever’s Manifesto and know that it’s okay to give up before you start. You don’t have to set the world on fire. Undertake the task only if it’s truly meaningful, and you have the time, energy, skills, and psychic bandwidth to handle it. Sure you want to proceed? Then abandon attachment to the result and immerse yourself in the process. The value of completing Daunting Tasks lies in the journey theretoward, not in the end state of accomplishment. Still on board? Then on to Step 2!
2. Start Now
Start right away, “before the cream sits out too long.” Immediate action, even baby steps, generates momentum and confidence.
3. Enlarge Yourself
In your mind, make yourself bigger than the task. You are huge and powerful: you look down on this puny job like a towering giant who twiddles trees like matchsticks. Grab your Daunting Task by the, er, family jewels, and squeeze until he begs permission to shrink to a manageable size. Grant such permission. Now kiss and make up. You’re friends, but you had to show who’s in charge.
4. Brainstorm a Quick & Dirty Plan
Quickly write down a strategy for dealing with the Task. Don’t think hard about it, just jot down whatever thoughts come into your head. Write badly and don’t edit. Later, look over your notes and rearrange the order of your thoughts. Try to see how the job might be broken down into manageable sub-tasks.
5. Draft or Rehearse
Based on your notes, write a draft plan for accomplishing the Daunting Task. Alternatively, if it’s a job interview, presentation or the like, “rehearse” the task: shut yourself into a room (preferably with a video camera) and let ‘er rip. Who cares if you sound goofy or your draft plan reads terribly? By blurting out the words you need—whether on paper or by voice—you’ll start to understand what you want to say, and perceive the gaps in your plan. And by blundering through one “dress rehearsal”—sloppy as it may be—you’ll feel like you’re 50% of the way home. See how your confidence has jumped?
6. Be Confident and Be Friends
You can do it! View your task as a challenge, a job, a project—anything but a problem. Thinking of something as a problem from the get-go immediately positions you to fight the Daunting Task rather than collaborate in achieving the promise of its purpose. Remember, you bought into tackling the job during Step 1. So be friends with it. Let the challenge of your work create curiosity rather than despair. If you feel stuck, read a book on the subject, or seek out and approach an expert for advice.
7. Do First What You Want to Do Least
Clark’s Rule About Priorities (CRAP™), the first of Clark’s Rules, says Do First What You Want to Do Least. It’s based on the difference between urgency and importance. Even though you’re friends with your Daunting Task, somehow you may find it easier to start each day by responding to e-mail, browsing the Web, and accomplishing little, “urgent” errands. Resist the temptation. Stick with the important task: the Daunting Task.
Finally, celebrate the process as much as the end result by treating yourself as you pass through major milestones. You’ve earned it!
The foregoing is hereby formalized as Clark’s Axiom Regarding Daunting Tasks (CARD TASKS): Abandon either the task or attachment to the result. Earlier this week, Mark put it beautifully as “Think Progress, Not Completion.”
As always, read the disclaimer, and be advised that Clark’s Rules may apply only to Clark, who can barely follow them himself. Here are a few others you can check out:
“Clark’s Law of Work” (Attractiveness is inversely proportional to compensation)
“Clark’s Communication Potency Theorum” (The power of communications improve exponentially with proximity, either physical or psychological)
“Clark’s Option on Opportunities Theory (COOTTM)”
(This post has bubbled up from the deep blue Soul Shelter archives)